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Smart city strategies need to put citizens first

Mon 25 Feb 2019 | Ricky Morton

As with digital transformation, we need to move beyond ‘doing’ smart to ‘being’ smart, says Ricky Morton, digital and transformation lead advisor for London Borough of Newham

As a long term advisor on digital transformation and smart city initiatives, my advice remains the same today as it’s always been. We need to be agile, smart and dedicated. We need to make the most of what we’ve got and embrace the best of what’s on offer. We need to view everything as an opportunity – even austerity. And we need to listen to our residents, our local businesses and our partners.

That’s not to say we’ll do everything they ask us to. But they are the communities we represent and the reason we are there in the first place. So the very least they deserve is a strong voice in the process of government at the local level.

Yet not only do we need to listen to our communities: we also need to listen to our ‘place’, by equipping our environment to take part in the civic conversation through intelligent use of the internet of things.

We need to hear what our landscape is saying to us to know how to take care of it and how to make best use of it. We need to build ‘Place as a Platform’ for ambition and aspiration, embedding digital innovation, connectivity infrastructure and data into the fabric of our boroughs as engines of change to drive economic growth, enable public service reform, deliver sustainable solutions and empower our communities.

To do so, we need to understand our place as much as we need to understand our people, so that we can embed smart city approaches to planning, transport, housing, waste, energy and water to better manage and sustain our environment.

Why? Because there are many technologies on the horizon offering new ways to manage, mitigate and monitor. Too many for us to use at any one time.

Unanswered questions

I don’t know what value will 5G and low power WANS will bring to our communities. But I do know that we’re working on that. On figuring out how to know. The Future Cities Catapult has committed to investing half a million pounds to form a network of pioneering local authorities seeking to understand and harness the benefits of next-generation 5G connectivity as a tool for income generation, local economic growth and public service innovation.

The Digital Catapult and the Things Network are leading with Things Connected, a free-to-use LoRaWAN network for the experimenting and prototyping of new IoT products and services.

We may not yet know the answers, but we know how to go about finding them.

And as with digital transformation, we need to move beyond ‘doing’ smart to ‘being smart’. Smart city approaches and the internet of things have to become how we do things. How we design services. How we make decisions. How we achieve outcomes.

Top-down approaches need to be complemented by bottom-up initiatives. Infrastructure needs innovation to make it useful to the neighbourhood. Connectivity needs content and conversations. Global strategies need local ideas to embed themselves in the community.

So local authorities on the front-line of delivering public services need to combine digital, data and technology innovation with smart city approaches to make their boroughs safer, their organisations more responsive and approachable, and to help healthier and happier residents live in more sustainable and attractive environments.

“Businesses need more than raw data — they need entire workloads to be portable and immediately implemented throughout their IT infrastructure”

Smart cities need smart citizens. To achieve the outcomes our residents want requires commitment, community and collaboration. Technology without vision, without values, without verve, will deliver nothing. Not least because city infrastructure is increasingly digital as well as physical, opening up new opportunities for smart and social spaces. It’s moving fast. New opportunities appear every day.

Bold visions

In our defence, local authorities have to decide how much faith to put in the bold visions drawn by companies as to how their technology will change our lives and our cities. We have to judge whether an offering really can change the face of our place, or whether it is just street clutter, whether a solution is future-proof, or already half past its sell-by date.

As an advocate of innovation and builder of digital futures, I really do believe in the positive impact of technology to improve service delivery, create more social spaces, support civic engagement, and encourage ambition and aspiration. But to achieve these benefits we need to move beyond the top-down approaches of old and encourage bottom-up place-making. We need to avoid playing with technology for technology’s sake. We need to focus on the right challenges. And we need to understand our central role in place-making as the democratically-elected representatives of the local people.

The good news is we have recognised many of our challenges and are getting better at this. Last year I worked with techUK on their guide to “What makes a ‘good’ Digital Board” as they looked to help increase demand-side maturity in the public sector. And last month I was at the Local Digital Collaboration Roadshow at Here East in Newham. Itself, a great example of place-making at the Olympic Park.

The Local Digital Declaration, co-published by the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), the Government Digital Service (GDS) and numerous local bodies, offers a strong vision, instantly recognisable to anyone who has worked in the local government sector on either the buy or supply side.

A commitment to work together to deliver our shared ambition, with a mix of fixing the plumbing and embedding digital to build this brave new world. It remains to be seen whether central government has really recognised the widely different dimensions and more visceral, intimate relationships of local government with citizens, but it’s a great start.

And one that all of us are keen for suppliers to join us on.

Join me at Smart IoT.

Ricky is presenting at Smart IoT, taking place at ExCeL London March 12-13th. Smart IoT and its colocated events attract over 20,000 IT industry professionals.

Experts featured:

Ricky Morton

Digital and Smart City Advisor
London Borough of Newham


public sector smart cities smart iot
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